Ruan had spent hours scouting the camp. He was an expert at not drawing attention when he didn’t want to, which allowed him to move freely about without anyone questioning his presence. He’d quietly listened in on all manner of idle conversation and focused discussion, and had sorted nearly everyone’s intention and purpose into appropriate boxes. With only one exception, no one’s presence here seemed strange or out of place.

That exception was Archwizard Girald.

By law, he could offer no input into the politics. He wasn’t here to minister to people or help with the clean-up. Neither he nor the wizards who kept close to him had offered any assistance to soldiers, refugees, or anyone else in the camp. There was no reason for him to be here.

Spying on an archwizard was dangerous business, especially when Ruan was here all alone, with no one to back him up. It wasn’t what he had come here to do. Although, strangely, it was getting difficult to remember what he had come here to do. Chasing Varajas, yes, but there had been another thing—the excuse he’d given Father Donatien. What had that been?

It didn’t matter. Whatever it had been had been small. A misbehaving archwizard, that couldn’t be ignored.

Girald’s tent had no guards standing around it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t guarded. There were all kinds of magics that could be surrounding it. The most benign of these would simply inform Girald someone was invading his space, but there was more dangerous magic that Ruan wouldn’t be surprised to learn Girald engaged with. There was very little Ruan could learn about Girald that would surprise him.

When it came to the Archwizard of the Star, Ruan was hardly an objective observer. He didn’t like the man, didn’t trust the man. Even if he’d never been able to prove anything, Ruan was convinced that Girald was up to no good.

So now, he took a risk.

The twin blades might be the symbol of the Brotherhood, but a blade’s true weapon was conviction. That was the lesson that was both breathlessly simple and unbelievably challenging. To be absolute in your certainties, so confident in yourself that magic couldn’t touch you, couldn’t change you—that was how a blade survived.

To be a good blade required stubbornness. To be a masterful blade one had to move past the active effort of will and into a place where one was so certain at one’s core it became effortless.

Ruan was one of the best. Which was why he didn’t hesitate to question if he could, or even if he should, he simply walked forward into Girald’s domain with absolute faith that nothing would stop him.

On silent footsteps, he made his way up to Girald’s spacious tent. He could hear voices inside, low and muffled by the thick fabric. He crept closer, crouched down. Still couldn’t make out the words.

Since he was already taking risks, what was one more? He stretched out on the ground and inched forward, prone, to the very edge of where the fabric touched the ground. With slow, deliberate care, he eased the edge up, breath by breath, moving slow as he could, until he had a sliver of space to press his eye against and through which to listen.

His view was half-blocked by a table in front of him, but Ruan could see enough. He took in the lush appointments—the thickly upholstered furniture, the woven rugs, the crystal and china beneath a half-eaten meal on another table across the tent. The archwizard, it seemed, did not believe in roughing it. Golden braziers glowed, emitting smokeless heat, and crystals suspended from the ceiling put out soft light.

Girald was in here, talking to a man Ruan had never seen before. Younger—at least in appearance—and with the pale skin of someone from the south. At first, his back was to Ruan, but as he spoke and gestured, he turned just enough that Ruan could see the empty socket on his face. This man was missing an eye.

“—think I’m ready,” the younger man was saying as Ruan squirmed to where he could hear clearly.

“Good, good.” Girald had a glass of wine in his hand, was seated in a gold-edged and silk-cushioned chair. “You’ve been thorough.”

The younger man preened at the praise. “I can start tonight.”

“Yes, you should. But, Peyter, make certain you’ve prepared for if anyone tries to intrude on the magic.”

“Intrudes? How would that even happen? Everyone’s forgotten the castle by now.”

A thin smile spread across the Archwizard’s face, a smile that held no warmth. “You won’t believe who rode into camp today.”

“Lysander? I heard, but I don’t see how that—”

“Samir was with him.”

Peyter fell silent for a moment, then cracked a smile to match Girald’s. “Samir. Truly?”

“Yes. He may try to cause you trouble. And if he does…?”

“Oh I’ll be ready for Samir. Don’t worry about that.”

“Good. Then go. The sooner you start, the sooner we’ll be done.”

The wizards hadn’t been kind enough to actually talk about what they were planning, but Ruan was fairly certain it wasn’t anything good. And the mention of Samir…whatever was happening, Ruan couldn’t allow it to go forward.

He couldn’t march in and arrest an archwizard—he didn’t have enough evidence for that—but he could follow this Peyter, interrupt whatever he had planned, and drag him to the nearest church for questioning.

That would be its own dangerous game. He’d need to know what magic Peyter was going to do, so that would require following him and letting him start, then interrupting before anything bad happened. Ruan had played this game before. It was delicate, but possible.

Peyter left the tent, and Ruan followed him just long enough to mark his direction. As Ruan suspected, he was heading up towards the castle. That had been clear enough from the conversation. With that in mind, Ruan fell back, letting Peyter get ahead enough there was no chance he’d notice Ruan following. Still, Ruan did his best to move quietly, especially once they left the encampment and had moved into the wooded territory that formed a buffer between the camp and the battlefields.

Ruan was focused ahead, rather than behind, so when a twig cracked at his back, he startled, grabbing for his swords as he spun round, centering himself automatically to keep safe from any magic.

But it wasn’t an angry archwizard who had snuck up behind him, who was now staring, open-mouthed, his own hand on the hilt of a sword.

It was Varajas.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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